By Sabrina Lebron Rodriguez for VolleyballMag.com
There is no other team like Army West Point in this NCAA Tournament.
The Knights, who go into their Wednesday match against the ACC’s Notre Dame with a record of 6-2, have 12 freshmen on the roster, a few of whom are among the team leaders.
And, of course, they, and everyone else on the team, will end up in the Army after graduation.
“West Point has been definitely challenging,” freshman Paige Fixemer said. “Just being an official athlete just in general here at West Point, and on top of that being a freshman in a military academy where you have 22 credits per semester is challenging.”
Army is back in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time. The first was in 2009, coach Alma Kovaci Lee’s second year.
Since then, the Knights have had some strong seasons, been close, but never broke through until beating Colgate on its home floor April 3 in the Patriot League final.
McKenzie Karnig, a freshman outside from Carlsbad, California, and Allanah Cutler, a freshman right side from Long Beach, California, had 16 kills apiece in the 23-25, 25-21, 25-17, 25-23 victory. Senior setter Hannah Presley had six kills, 43 assists, an ace, and seven digs.
“I’m so proud our team for the way they showed maturity today,” Kovaci Lee said after that match. “Even though our women are young, they had the ability to be calm under pressure,”
So it was on to Omaha and the 48-team tournament. The Army-Notre Dame winner moves on to play 10th-seeded Oregon.
“It’s going be a great experience and being able to do it in my last season is really awesome,” said Presley, one of four seniors on the team.
“Having the opportunity to play teams outside of the Patriot League is definitely one of the highlights of the NCAA Tournament.”
Presley, who is from Tracy, California, and headed to Army flight school in Alabama in May, averaged 9.39 assists per set in the team’s eight matches and had 46 kills, six aces, is second with 117 digs, and has 10 blocks.
“I give a lot of credit to Hannah, because she has done an incredible job in the gym and with her teammates,” Kovaci Lee said.
Army didn’t get many chances to play this season and ended up seemingly playing Holy Cross all the tine.
The Knights split at Colgate to open the Patriot League, losing in five before sweeping two days later. Their matches with Navy — there’s an entire page in the record book listing the history of just Army-Navy volleyball matches — were postponed, and so were two matches with Holy Cross that were made up. They split those, too.
For that matter, Army played Holy Cross twice more, winning them both, before the matches with Lafayette were canceled. Army never got to play Navy, nor perennial PL power American.
In the conference tournament, they beat Holy Cross in the semifinal, this time in five, as junior Cate Buckingham, an outside from San Antonio, led with 12 kills.
Cutler leads Army with 98 kills and has 16 blocks. Fixemer, who has the added benefit of going back to her home town this week — she played prep volleyball at Millard South in Omaha — has 87 kills and leads Army with 26 blocks. Senior middle Monica Eckford has 70 kills and 16 blocks.
Senior Ana Oglivie, a libero from Kapolei, Hawai’i, has 165 digs (5.0/set).
Kovaci Lee, who is from Albania and played at Temple, said she takes a different approach to coaching at Army.
“Being at West Point has taught me to be very organized on how I structure the practices and how I spend their time.”
Another aspect of Kovaci’s preparation is sports psychology. The coach tries to make the players visualize different game scenarios and their goals.
“Coaching in West Point has been an incredible experience because West Point is just more than volleyball, it’s life,” says coach Kovaci. “I feel lucky that I have the opportunity to be part of their journey because it’s incredible.”
Notre Dame is 14-3, 13-3 in the ACC. The Fighting Irish went 6-1 in the fall. Notre Dame is in the NCAA Tournament for the 21st time and third time in four seasons.
Sophomore outside Caroline Meuth leads Notre Dame with 126 kills (3.71/set), has 94 digs and 35 blocks. What’s more, she and Army’s Buckingham went to the same high school in San Antonio, Winston Churchill.
Freshman outside Aubrey Hamilton has 105 kills and has 17 blocks. Junior outside Charley Niego has 98 kills and 74 digs.
Junior setter Zoe Nunez averages 11.65 sets and has 113 digs, 17 blocks, and 10 aces. Freshman libero Hattie Monson has team highs of 160 digs and 11 aces.
Also, Army’s Karnig and Notre Dame’s Lindsey Miller, a freshman middle from San Diego, were teammates on the same Coast club team for six years.